To examine the effect of therapy on status epilepticus (SE) acutely and on long-term outcome, we compared three drugs with three different mechanisms. Phenobarbital, MK-801, and phenytoin were administered at 1, 2, and 4 hours after initiation of limbic status epilepticus by "continuous" hippocampal stimulation in rats. We evaluated the effects of these drugs on the course of SE and the subsequent development of chronic epilepsy. Phenobarbital and MK-801 were superior to phenytoin in suppressing SE and in preventing chronic epilepsy. There was no benefit if treatment was given 2 hours after the initiation of SE. Phenobarbital was most effective in suppressing electrographic seizure activity, but MK-801 had a slightly wider window for the prevention of chronic epilepsy. Early treatment, rather than electrographic suppression of SE, correlated with prevention of chronic epilepsy. This study shows that the drugs administered, which have different mechanisms of action, have clear differences in altering the outcomes. The findings suggest that studies of SE treatment should examine the effect of therapy on SE itself, as well as the long-term benefits of each treatment. The use of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonists should be considered early in the treatment of SE.